David Lowery on the Camper & Cracker Family Reunion

Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker frontman speaks about quasi-reunion tour
Posted Feb 8, 2000 at 12:00am
David Lowery has corralled Cracker and members of his previous band, Eighties college radio heroes Camper Van Beethoven, out into the California desert. In the otherwise sleepy hamlet of Pioneertown (about 100 miles east of Los Angeles), the bands are rehearsing for a highly anticipated tour to promote both Cracker's forthcoming double-disc set of greatest hits and outtakes, Garage D'Or (Virgin), and Camper Van Beethoven Are Dead. Long Live Camper Van Beethoven, a retrospective of Camper's thinking-man's punk and twang, which will be available in early March through the Cracker/Camper online command center (www.pitchatent.com).

Not a formal reunion per se, the shows will open with sets of solo material from ex-Campers Victor Krummenacher, Jonathan Segal and Greg Lisher before Lowery and Cracker join the fold for a garage-y romp through both outfit's histories and futures. From a payphone outside the Pioneertown Palace (immortalized in the Counting Crow's "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby," from their latest album, This Desert Life, which Lowery co-produced), Lowery discussed the desert mystique and the myth that he's a cynic.

Why are you in Pioneertown?

It's not far from where I went to high school. A lot of other musicians come out here; it's kind of a tradition. Gram Parsons and the Rolling Stones would come to these hotels out here. It usually involved taking drugs and trying to write songs and stuff. At the time we came out here to do [Cracker's] second album [1993's Kerosene Hat], Giant Sand and Victoria Williams and Tanya Donelly were living out here. Pioneertown used to be used as a movie set for Roy Rogers in the Forties, but all these people live in it. [Pioneertown Palace owner] Harriet lets us rehearse in the bar, and in exchange we play a show on the last night.

Is the Pioneertown Palace like the bar in the Blues Brothers, with a fence across the stage and drunken cowboys tossing beer bottles until you play the theme from "Rawhide"?

It probably used to be like that. This was a big biker hangout. That's why I didn't go into the bar for many years. When I was younger I'd drive by the place and there'd be like forty-five motorcycles outside. It's toned down a lot over the last decade. It's a little more sophisticated now.

Your songs are so often called cynical or sarcastic. Are you as cynical as people might think?

I wouldn't say that's a reputation we have among our fans. That seems to be a reputation we have among people who hear a few of our songs on the radio. It doesn't bother me, but I do think it's unjust. Actually, I'm weirdly optimistic. A lot of what I do in my songs is to try to talk the way people really talk. In my generation there was a lot of cynicism and jadedness. If there's any sarcasm, irony or cynicism, I'm commenting more on the voice of our age. It's not necessarily me. In every other art form, in literature, you would use all these different tools -- you would use humor, you might use absurdity, something sarcastic, something optimistic, as well as being matter-of-fact. Even in a lot of other music genres, it's totally acceptable to do that. Rap music or even country music has more than just the this-is-my-story, she said/I said narrative style. I don't understand why rock music is the one popular art form that isn't allowed to have another narrative.

The idea of a greatest hits compilation seems so big music biz, something labels force an artist to do or that an artist does for extra money after a costly divorce. It seems really contrary to the guy who wrote the anti-industry anthem "I Want Out of the Circus."

It's extra to your contract, so you do get extra money for it. So there's an incentive for everyone, but the idea was that it would actually be a chance to release all these b-sides, outtakes, things from movies. We sent out a mass e-mailing to our fans and let them choose a bunch of stuff for the oddities part of the disc, and we also did three new songs ["Be My Love," "Heaven Knows I'm Lonely," "The Eyes of Mary"] from scratch just for this record. So if it had been a greatest hits only thing, if we hadn't had money to do a few new songs and if we couldn't put this oddities disc together, then I think it would have been kind of cheesy.

Cracker have certainly had a few big hits but you've never found mega-platinum hugeness. Do you think your music is too intelligent for the radio?

I don't know. Me and Johnny [Hickman, Cracker guitarist] have always had this quiet little rule that the cool people are dumber then we think and the normal people are smarter then we think. It's an axiom that we have to remember. It's sort of a way for us to remember that we don't have to be dumb, that we don't have to play things that are necessarily popular or universal. Johnny's way of describing it is that we play music for the "semi-hip." Both Camper and Cracker always had grand commercial ambitions. Camper wanted to be the Beatles, but we didn't really succeed. Cracker wanted to be the Rolling Stones -- we wanted to be a great rootsy rock band -- but we didn't really succeed either. We ended up being the Kinks.

This tour is kind of a strange, amorphous affair. Cracker will be playing Cracker numbers and you'll be doing some Camper stuff with the Camper guys, but we're not allowed to call it a Camper reunion. Please explain.

We don't call it a reunion because not everyone will be there all the time. I've been telling people it's like the P-Funk All Stars, a combination of Parliament and Funkadelic. This tour is kind of a revue, under the umbrella of Cracker. It's the Cracker Traveling Apothecary Show and Revue. This is the closest we'll ever get to a Camper reunion because, frankly, we're smarter than that. If we did a full reunion it would be like going to a museum. But revisiting the past is all right with me. We were learning "Tania" [from Camper's 1988 Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart] last night, and we were like, "You know, this is pretty fun to play."

Will there be any new recordings on the Camper collection?

Nothing completely new. We needed to look at what we had the rights to, what wasn't contractually encumbered. A lot of it was early stuff, before we had any deals with Virgin or I.R.S., stuff that wasn't finished. We found a lot of good ideas, a good melody here or guitar melody there. What we didn't have in the Camper age was digital technology, samplers and computer editing, but we do now. So we've just taken the drums off of one thing and the strings off something else and the guitar off of something else and changed the key and the tempo and put them all together. There's probably about six or seven pieces on this record that we've made like that. Technically they're not "new" songs, but no one will have heard them before.

Word on the street is that a few special guests -- like [Counting Crows singer] Adam Duritz and Joan Osborne -- will be turning up at these shows.

In Los Angeles and San Francisco you'll see some of our usual bigger-name celebrity guests, but I'm not saying who.

Written by GREG HELLER for RollingStone.com News